Love yourself, but not too much: Seventeen’s mixed message

By | August 9, 2010

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Body Peace Whatever Tonight’s episode of Huge will feature a scene related to Seventeen Magazine’s “Body Peace Project”, an effort launched in 2007 in collaboration with self-esteem guru Jess Weiner. The main thrust of the project seems to be the Body Peace Treaty, which can be read and electronically signed on Seventeen’s website. Signers of the treaty pledge to:

* Remember that the sun will still rise tomorrow even if I had one too many slices of pizza or an extra scoop of ice cream tonight.
* Stop joining in when my friends compare and trash their own bodies.
* Never allow a dirty look from someone else to influence how I feel about my appearance.
* Quit judging a person solely by how his or her body looks — even if it seems harmless — because I’d never want anyone to do that to me.
* Quiet that negative little voice in my head when it starts to say mean things about my body that I’d never tolerate anyone else saying about me.
* Remind myself that what you see isn’t always what you get on TV and in ads — it takes a lot of airbrushing, dieting, money, and work to look like that.
* Realize that the mirror can reflect only what’s on the surface of me, not who I am inside.

…and so on. You can read the whole thing here. The scene in Huge tonight will apparently involve some characters discussing and signing this pledge, and Hayley Hasselhoff, who plays Amber, will grace the pages of the new issue of the magazine, hitting newsstands tomorrow.

On the surface, it seems like a smart and responsible campaign. Body image issues can lead to all kinds of social problems, eating disorders, and lifelong struggles with low self esteem. These things are bad, and efforts to reach kids before they have fully internalized our culture of body loathing are not simply good ideas, but are absolutely necessary, for the health of future generations. What I cannot get over, however, is that this “Body Peace Treaty” is being pushed by Seventeen, one of the most visible and well-known proponents of the very perfection-seeking culture that produces impossible beauty standards and body hatred in the first place. This is like Joe Camel instructing you on the evils of cigarette smoking while simultaneously selling you cigarettes. It is incomprehensible.

It occurred to me, however, that maybe I’m behind the times. Maybe Seventeen has changed since the days in which it gave me a massive complex about my own prepubescent form. Being the fan of qualitative research that I am, I’ve collected the last six covers of Seventeen for the purposes of assessing how well they support the Body Love Treaty’s self-acceptance message. These covers have not been cherry-picked to make a point — they are the covers from February 2010 through July 2010 inclusive. Just in case my findings are not clear to everyone, I have marked them with an old-timey pointing hand. So let’s see the results.

February 2010

February 2010: “Get your hottest body! Your ultimate 2010 plan inside”

March 2010

March 2010: “Boost your bra size (in 1 month)”

April 2010

April 2010: “Get flat abs — fast!”

Special Prom Issue 2010

Prom Issue 2010: “Clear skin & flat abs by prom night!”

May 2010

May 2010: “Why can’t I stop gaining weight? Break your unhealthy habits forever”

June/July 2010

June/July 2010: “Get your best bikini body: The ultimate secret to a great butt, flat abs, and major confidence” Extra credit: “Read this now: The party drug that can make you fat and ugly”

It probably does not need to be emphasized, but I am going to say it anyway: These are not body-positive slogans. These are not ideas and suggestions intended to help girls accept themselves and disregard the intense cultural pressure to be slender, poreless, and large-busted. Rather, these are messages intended to reinforce that pressure, regardless of the harsh truth that not everyone is capable of looking that way. Possibly most disturbing is May 2010: “Why can’t I stop gaining weight? Break your unhealthy habits forever.” Though in some cases this may be true, weight gain is not universally caused by “unhealthy habits”. Sudden and unexpected weight gain can be a sign of an underlying health problem, certainly, though likely not one caused by an individual’s actions. More than that, this suggestion is sobering given the single most common cause of “weight gain” in Seventeen’s demographic of girls aged 12 to 19. The cause? Puberty. Seventeen would have girls attempt to stave off a process that is both normal and unavoidable. It is little wonder that so many women recall their body image problems beginning around the time that they began to develop breasts and hips — or, in Seventeen’s parlance, to “gain weight”.

As half-hearted “self-acceptance” rhetoric has become more of a trend in the selling of women’s self-esteem (thanks for kicking that off, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty) cognitive dissonance is inevitable. While making women feel good about themselves may create a positive association with a brand, ultimately magazines and the products they shill need women to feel inadequate so that they will be motivated to buy things to salve the inadequacy away, because people who are already contented with themselves and their lives are not constantly trying to buy happiness, or in this case, physical perfection. The resulting message is confusing and paradoxical: love yourself, even though you still aren’t pretty enough.

Seventeen’s Body Peace Project may yet do some good if it plants a seed in young women’s heads, and encourages them to question and criticize the media they consume. But in the end it rings hollow. If Seventeen truly believed in building the self esteem of women and girls, their covers and the content within would demonstrate that loud and clear, rather than seeking to exploit the low self esteem that their magazine has helped to create.

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